Return to Peru
Eduardo Velasco de la Torre, my mother's father, died in Lima, Peru on the morning of Sunday, April 2nd. It was two weeks before his 79th birthday.
A priest sings in Spanish about the body and blood of Christ. Scattered, half-hearted voices join in.
According to the priest, who says my grandfather's mass, dying on a Sunday in the year 2000 means you automatically go to heaven. This is a lucky break for my grandfather, who was not exactly religious.
He was a cotton farmer and a stubborn socialist and he wanted to die in his hometown, the northern desert city of Piura. But relatives harassed him into going to a hospital in Lima when his colon cancer became untreatable.
I don't think he would have been particularly impressed that I jumped on a plane in Los Angeles and spent a day getting to Peru. But of course, I didn't do it for him, a man I hardly knew. I did it for my mom.
I have been to Peru, the country where my mother was born, several times. You wouldn't guess my mother, Sandra, is from Peru. She doesn't even have an accent. Sandra only lived with her father until she was five, when her mother abruptly left with the kids, complaining that her husband was boring and unambitious. My grandmother wanted more than the dusty existence of provincial border town.
Three years later, my grandmother remarried, to an American banker. Teenage Sandra began a trek that landed her in Chile, India, Illinois, the Philippines, and finally Florida, where she met my American father. In 1969, they got married. Her father didn't come to the wedding.
In past visits, I rushed down the halls of the Jorge Chavez Airport, in a hurry to join the cacophony of Lima streets. But this time I let people cut in front of me in line to the immigration counter.
How is my mother reacting to the death of her father who kept her at a distance? Can I be the daughter my mom needs me to be right now? I ask my mother how she is.
"I'm very good, now that you're here", she says as she hugs me, her only child from a failed marriage, the girl she wanted to give everything she never had. Her tight hug is smothering. Her designer clothes make me feel embarrassed of my frumpy outfit.
We swerve and lurch down Avenida Arequipa, on our way to the chapel in the posh neighborhood of Miraflores where my grandfather is lying in state. My mother holds my hand tightly and tells me how happy she is to see me. She remarks on how nice Lima is looking. Look at the bright casinos, the banks, and the Blockbuster video store. And look how they repainted Pepe's old office, out of which he used to run security for the U.S. Embassy. Ten years ago, at that office, he came within feet of dying in the blast of a terrorist car bomb.
My Grandfather is lying in a shiny white coffin. I peer through a Plexiglass window cut into it; his face is yellow and shriveled.
She asks me to promise that we'll always stay in touch; that we'll see each other more than once every two years.
The next morning, Mom, my uncle Galo and I stop at my grandfather's sister's house. In her kitchen, we open up the boxes of my grandfathers books and papers and figure out who wants what. It had taken Galo only three hours to pack up all of his father's worldly possessions.
"The plant is a being that is born, grows and develops." I am surprised to find my mother's grade school spelling workbook among the piles of my grandfather's meticulous agriculture notebooks and dusty volumes of South American literature. I keep the spelling book, some postcards, and his reading glasses.
Everyone is late in Peru, and a Misa de Muertos, "Mass for the Dead", is no exception. Finally, a small group of relatives, many of whom I've never seen before, show up. My mom whispers that one used to be the chief of national police. He stands very still and wears intimidating sunglasses.
My uncle is invited by the priest to read. He reads that the tenderness a father feels for his children is the tenderness God feels for us. I had thought I would be sad at this point, but instead, I grow annoyed. The priest keeps forgetting my grandfather's name and pausing to check his cheat sheet. He says that, "Ah, Eduardo Velasco del la Torre was, among other things, an excellent husband and father". He says we're all in line to go to the same place he has gone. The priest says Eduardo will always be with us
With a flourish of holy water, the priest finally wraps things up and my relatives talk among themselves. The cousin who just found out her husband has been cheating on her for ten years talks politics with the reformed radical of the family. Another cousin explains to me that my granddad and the military dictator Juan Velasco were third cousins.
After signing a paper at the crematorium, my Mom is holding the warm box of my grandfather's ashes. The representative of the cremation company eyes her with concern. He's been mildly alarmed since my mother asked to see her father in the cremation chamber. Despite his misgivings, he finally raised the door on the chamber that was still in its pre-heat phase.
There he was, my grandfather, lying on a flat slab, bathed in an orange light, one hand over his chest, the other at his side. My mother whispered good-bye and the metal door came down with a thud. At that moment, a great weight lifted from her, she tells me, as we stand in line at the airport.
I am stamped out of Peru just three days after being stamped in.
My mother is exhausted. As the plane takes off, we argue about my future. As usual, I get very angry. "Face it, Mom. I'm not going to live in the wine country drinking your husband's fine cabernets and sailing with you on the QE II. I'll be in some remote hinterland getting an exclusive on very dangerous but dedicated revolutionaries."
She closes her eyes. I give her a mean look as she sleeps. She seems suddenly so much older than I remember her looking. I wonder, "Have I really looked at her since she married my stepfather seven years ago?" As I stare, I become aware of this very palpable sense of the vast chasm between us. It seems too immense to ever cross.
I leave my mother in Dallas and spend most of the next flight eavesdropping. But with only 20 minutes left of this trip to Peru, my thoughts drift back to the last time I saw my grandfather. He showed my boyfriend and me all around his hometown, the park, his favorite lunch spot, and the local museum. At the museum, he told us that a De la Torre, one of his direct ancestors, had come on the boat with the conquistador Pissaro. He was very proud. He was also proud of the new dam in Piura. "It's so hard to have enough water here in the desert", he said. "I have spent my whole life thinking about this problem", he said
Mostly blind and already quite weak, he leaned on my arm as we walked to the post office to get the money my mom sent him every month. And, although nothing about the wake or the burial has moved me, suddenly there on the plane, I can once more sense his thick, leathery hand clutching my arm as we walked. The distance of age, space and experience closing in the moment that I can feel again the clutch of warm hands, grabbing for support. And that warm touch is now a box of grey ashes.
I'm Tatiana Harrison for The Savvy Traveler.
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